Grizzly bear plus Pteradactyl equals Bear-o-dactyl. Bear-o-dactyl plus a couple other comics per week equals half a million bucks annually for 29-year-old Matthew Inman.
Inman is better known as The Oatmeal, and if you don’t know his name, there’s a good chance you’ve seen his stripped-down drawings of people and animals commenting, darkly, on all aspects of the human condition. His comics tackle everything from "Why 3D Movies Need To Die" to "How The Male Angler Fish Gets Completely Screwed" (his first book was called 5 Very Good Reasons To Punch A Dolphin In The Mouth). The Oatmeal attracts over 4 million visitors a month and Inman has turned that popularity into a degree of fame (he’s appeared on talk shows discussing his work) and a very good living.
Inman is new to the "independently wealthy" thing. Though talented, he transitioned from miserable SEO worker in 2009 to pteradactyl-penning millionaire today by seeing the saturated web comic industry as a businessman, not simply an artist.
Few of the comic artists spilling digital ink on the Internet manage to turn their passion into a scrape-by living. Still fewer build profitable businesses like Inman’s. "You’ve got to be intensely self-motivated and know how to delegate tasks you’re not good at," explains Jeph Jacques, author of the seven-year-running comic QuestionableContent, or QC. "You probably have to have some mental problems as well."
QC is a comic that centers on the world of nerdy rock fan Marten Reed. Like Inman, Jacques has amassed a loyal fanbase: 400,000 readers generate over 25 million pageviews per month.
Pre-digital comics typically made money in one of two ways: revenue from the publications in which they were printed (e.g. paid for by ads in newspapers), or direct sales of the comics as collections. Pickles and Peanuts in the Sunday paper, Calvin & Hobbes hardback books, and Dilbert calendars. Occasionally, a comic would graduate into cartoons and movies, and become a brand, like Garfield. In the paper world, artists were constrained by contracts, agents, and fine print; the few who made it big took decades doing it.
Then came the web. Publishing became cheap. Artists started posting paperless comics en masse. Still, monetization came through advertising, which on homemade websites, was pretty paltry, even in Internet ad terms.
Inman, Jacques, and other full-time web comic artists, however, have made the majority of their greenbacks through other means. At the end of the day, they’re not selling comics or eyeballs; they’re running online stores.
The web comic’s innovation is merch. Funny drawings get people in the door. Regular updates turn them loyal. Loyal fans buy T-shirts.
Inman says The Oatmeal makes $400,000 a year from merchandise—posters, shirts, buttons, magnets—twice as much money as he makes through ads.
Promotion for a web comic must—by nature—be inexpensive approaching free, since the value per visitor is very low. Especially in the early days. The most successful comics rely on social media and plugs from other artists, often through guest posts.
Jacques says QC grew through "word of mouth, broadness of appeal, consistency of quality, and a strong dash of luck." His site, though smattered with banner ads, sells an array of 40 products, mainly T-shirts with inside jokes from the comic strip. "For me, the difference between making a living and not making a living was simply getting more readers and rewarding them with great material," Inman says. "I’ve always worked hard to provide a ton of free, enjoyable comics."
Whether it’s foulmouthed sentient robots, dinosaurs on drugs, or printers from hell, the "viral + merch" model employed by successful web comic authors allows them to attract a wide audience at little cost, and make a lot of money at scale.
"I seriously, seriously doubt I could find a 'normal’ job that paid me as well as QC does," Jacques says.